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Small Group Writing Instruction: A Collaborative Approach by Teachers and Paras at the Sarah Greenwood

Teacher: Crystal Alcala
School: Sarah Greenwood K-8 School, Dorchester, MA

The Challenge:
At the Sarah Greenwood, more than 70% of the school population is Hispanic and more than 90% of students are identified as high needs. 47.8% of students are English Learners and 22.6% of students have identified disabilities. 16% of Greenwood students are either meeting or exceeding MCAS English Language Arts expectations. Teachers and paraprofessionals in 1st and 2nd grade developed a small group writing model to reduce the student-teacher ratio, eliminate distractions and be able to differentiate instruction to meet the academic, social-emotional and linguistic needs of children as they develop and formulate ideas first orally and then in writing.

What did your team do about it?:
We designed writing units to be taught by paras, teachers and our coach. In 1st grade, we were able to successfully divide the class into 3 groups taught by the para, teacher, and coach. The kits created had everything in triplicate, one set per teacher (anchor texts, sets of vocabulary words, charts, high frequency words, art materials, resources to use when illustrating, and teacher created examples). Paras, teachers, and our coach worked collaboratively to build our own confidence and skills in teaching writing groups. In 2nd grade, scheduling and space was a problem (we divided the class into 2 groups).

Impact on Students:
Students preferred the small group and the intensive support. The end-of-year writing prompt could not be administered but we have pre/mid prompts and data. The amount and quality of writing was markedly improved when we had three teachers, each in a separate space. We could listen to students and respond to their academic/social/emotional needs in a way that rarely happens when a single teacher attempts to facilitate Writers’ Workshop independently, with the para assisting one or two children. Some children even insisted on forgoing recess, lunch with peers, or specialists, so they could continue to write.

Teacher Leadership and School Community:
We grew increasingly comfortable asking questions about how to serve students better. The focus of the Writers’ Workshop projects and PD never strayed from how to facilitate students’ writing and illustration of original books. It is clear that the paras’ level of engagement depends on the extent to which the school regards them as educators whose skills make an invaluable difference in the classroom. Making our own materials really laid out the nuts and bolts of the project and fostered ownership among all the group members. We have to focus on teachers and paras continuing to work in close collaboration.

What’s Next?
Questions concerning autonomy, partner/buddy editing, using richer vocabulary and grammatical structures are ones we will continue to pursue. With a writing intensive dual language curriculum, we want to ensure we develop art centers that are rooted in our STEAM/Ethnic Studies themes. Art should function to deepen students’ overall understanding of content. The question of how to integrate Paraprofessionals into school-wide/grade level PD will also be continued. Distance learning has made us realize that students are excited to do video presentations for peers. We might then continue this once Writers’ Workshop/literacy centers are back in school.

Helping Others:
The kits and the model (small group approach to writers’ workshop) are something we’d like to share. We want to encourage others to collaborate much more closely with paraprofessionals to maximize their potential as instructional partners. This could be done through PD, by means of a series of slide shows if we are still doing distance learning, or in a sharing session set up by our school administrators.